Frank X Walker hopes to fulfill his dream and one day drive a bookmobile.
Gov. Steve Beshear and the Kentucky Arts Council inducted Walker last week as the 2013-2014 Kentucky Poet Laureate.
At the ceremony, Walker said he didn’t dream of becoming poet laureate when he was young, but he had dreams thanks to books.
“I grew up in a housing project in Danville and when the bookmobile came to my neighborhood it was more important than the ice cream truck,” Walker said. “I didn’t know as a child that we were poor.
“The bookmobile was a library on wheels and I would spend hours there. We didn’t have a TV in my house and books allowed me to travel the solar system, to learn about Jacque Cousteau. I had an active imagination and discovering through books would feed it.”
Walker’s mother realized that at an early age that he possessed an active imagination and used books to help him sleep or calm him during a thunderstorm. Walker said he writes on a level playing field and not on an elitist one.
“On my best days I don’t imagine myself in a tuxedo or in a suit and tie in a boardroom but with regular people in T-shirts and jeans,” Walker said.
“I want my poetry to be accessible to the common man. I don’t write for academics or scholars. Poetry is for everybody. It’s not an issue of income and it’s a different kind of richness.”
Walker didn’t realize till later in school when classmates went on spring break trips to Europe and Florida that his family was poor.
“I thought you went and worked during spring break in tobacco to have extra money,” Walker said. “Poetry is a great equalizer. Growing up in a housing project, I escaped what some of my peers did because of books. I didn’t end up in a prison and although I worked in a factory I didn’t stay there. My self-esteem increased because of books and what could happen in the world for me.”
Walker said art and education are great equalizers for children who may not have the advantage and opportunities of living in a big city.
“We should feel the same way about art as a chance to enrich children’s lives,” he said.
Walker said things haven’t changed in his gut after being inducted as poet laureate, but intuitively there is.
“The San Francisco Chronicle reported I was the first African-American poet Laureate in Kentucky and that is the big news to most, but it’s more than that,” Walker said. “I think people believe Kentucky is one way and it’s not true. It feels like a victory that people may see how much progress we’ve made and being an African-American doesn’t lessen that. This is a broader based state.”
Walker emphasized the nation may see Kentucky as more than a conservative state but an open minded, diverse one.
“In Kentucky it means something to be a writer,” Walker said. “I am proud of the good that’s happening within this state. I know people who can’t wait to leave the state and are always imagining something better. You should be in some place that feeds you and you are committed to do the work. I’m proud to call Kentucky home.”
During the ceremony, Beshear said he was the one that felt honored inducting Walker.
“It’s days like this when I get to induct an immensely talented writer as the Commonwealth’s newest poet laureate I realize what a privilege it is to be governor,” Beshear said. “To read Frank X Walker is to sometimes leave yourself emotionally exhausted. His poems take you to uncomfortable places: cemeteries, and prisons, street corners, mountain hollers, playgrounds, poverty, the kitchen of an angry mother…he helps you recognize things about yourself…and he does this in the context of Kentucky’s complex history.”
Walker has written several books of poetry based on historical research.
When Winter Come: The Ascension of York, a reimagining of Lewis and Clark’s exploration told through the eyes of a slave, Issac Murphy: I Dedicate this Ride, poems from the perspective of Isaac Burns Murphy the successful son of a slave who became a celebrated jockey and his most recent work Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers Walker pioneered a new genre of poetry he calls persona poems.
“I remember sitting down and thinking about the Lewis and Clark story and thought it would be more powerful if it was written from his (the slave York) point of view,” Walker said. “You have to research your facts and have a correct timeline. I bought about 12 history books on the subject before I finished the second poem. I memorized maps, the party list. There were so many details from the research it was easy to access the facts.”
Walker said he used slave narratives from the time period to approximate York’s language.
“He wasn’t a field hand so he had access to language in a different way—he was in the party and witness to Lewis and Clark’s discussion,” Walker said. “He would’ve had a different accent so I factored all of those things in.”
Walker used those factors and colored the poems with emotion similar to what music does within a motion picture.
“The difference is emotion adds power to a historic poem,” Walker said. “It is exciting the same way in a movie with a soundtrack. I used the devices of language to produce something that is melancholy the same way music makes you feel in a movie.”
Walker’s book, When Winter Come: The Ascension of York, was received so positively from history buffs that it secured him an invite to a Lewis & Clark conference.
“I was nervous I would get something wrong,” Walker said. “It didn’t happen. I knew they would be looking for mistakes—historical inaccuracies. That is why research is so important. If one thing is wrong it invalidates you.”
Past poet laureates Maureen Morehead, Gurney Norman, Sena Jeter Naslund, Joe Survant, Jane Gentry Vance and Richard Taylor joined Walker on Kentucky’s Writers’ Day celebrated on Robert Penn Warren’s birthday — the first United States Poet Laureate.
Walker serves as an Associate Professor of the UK English Department and a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets. Walker served as Executive Director of the Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium, program coordinator of UK’s King Cultural Center and assistant director of Purdue University’s Black Cultural Center.
UK awarded Walker with an honorary Doctorate of Humanities and Transylvania University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters. Walker received the Thomas D. Clark Literary Award for Excellence in 2006 and Lannan Literary Fellowship in Poetry in 2005.